by Julian Spivey
What do you say when the Greatest of All-Time passes away?
There’s really not words to put on paper that can perfectly articulate just what Muhammad Ali meant to sports, pop culture and the world.
Ali, three-time heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medalist, died late June 3 at a hospital in the Phoenix area. He was 74.
He was a king in and out of the ring and changed the popular athlete forever. His brashness and poetic way with words not only helped to talk himself up, but showed the world what a black athlete could be – powerful, smart, articulate and uncontrollable. It was the beginning of a new world Ali was ushering in and many in this country didn’t like it. Hell, the American Government tried to get rid of him – reclassifying his draft status and attempting to induct him into the military, which he refused to do. He had no quarrel with the Viet Cong he said and didn’t feel the need to kill for a country that didn’t have the backs of his own race. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from boxing for more than three years during his prime.
Ali stood for what he believed in, which as someone who isn’t old enough to have seen him fight live, means more to me than anything he could have done inside of the boxing ring. When his ban was lifted he came back with his greatest fights to regain the Heavyweight title against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman – events that will live on in the annals of sports legend for the rest of time.
Ali was long retired and already diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease by the time I was even born, so what I know from his fighting is what I’ve seen on YouTube and ESPN. I can’t speak to what it means to have seen Ali in his prime, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a heroic or legendary figure to me in the same way that another highly influential and barrier-breaking athlete like Jackie Robinson is to me. I have multiple posters/photos/artwork of Ali on my walls at home. I’m not even a boxing fan – not that the sport gives much to cheer about any more like it did in Ali’s days.
As a writer it was Ali’s way with words that really make him stand out for me in addition to him standing up for his beliefs, another thing I’ve always admired in a person. Ali’s IQ was only a 78, which is why he originally wasn’t classified to be drafted, but his poetic way with words shows he wasn’t exactly dumb. He once said, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”
A lot of times today sports fans believe that athletes talk too much, especially about themselves. This all goes back to Ali, who was truly the first to do it, which is why he’s typically referred to as the first of the “modern athletes.” With language like “Float like a butterfly/sting like a bee/His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” “I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I can’t possibly be beat” and “If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize” he not only stood out in his own time, but also in some ways became a precursor to the hip-hop generation.
Arrogance and brashness is a character that a lot of people to this very day cannot stand in an athlete, but some athletes do it with such grace and in such a fashion that you can’t help but to fall in love with them. Ali was this way and it is part of the reason why we’re OK with him referring to himself as “The Greatest.” He backed it up all the way.
The Champ is gone. There’s never gonna be another.